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Bono Praises World Bank Honcho

Global pop star Bono called the World Bank's top financier "the Elvis of economics" on Monday, in recognition of the banker's push for debt relief for poor nations.

"I always ask who is the Elvis of economics, who is the King?" said Bono, lead singer of Irish rock band U2. "Mr. Wolfensohn is like Elvis."

James Wolfensohn is president of the World Bank, which is shooting to double the number of poor countries qualifying for special debt relief packages by year's end.

His curly white locks contrasting starkly with Bono's slicked-back hair, Wolfensohn smiled as the black-clad rocker, sporting his signature goggle-style glasses, called him a "moral" and "bold" man.

The two exchanged views during a panel discussion on economic globalization ahead of Tuesday's joint annual meeting of the World Bank and its sister lending agency, the International Monetary Fund.

Bono used the forum to stump for his favorite issue -- expunging the crushing debt that keeps many poor countries paying off creditors instead of investing in better roads, health care or education.

"If we are to make a start in solving the biggest problem on the planet...debt cancellation is the door we must pass through," Bono said.

Recently, Bono spoke about the issue with CBS News.

The Clinton administration, as part of the president's 2001 budget request, asked Congress to provide $435 million to fund America's share of a proposal to forgive a portion of the debt.

The money would be funneled through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and various regional development banks.

However, the House approved only $224 million while the Senate approved just $75 million of the administration's request. The issue has become entangled in a separate debate of the need to push through reforms of the IMF and World Bank, who have come under heavy criticism from Republicans who control both the House and Senate for failing to properly handle the 1997-98 Asian currency crisis.

Bono became interested in the cause of Third World debt relief back in the '80s, when U2 participated in LiveAid, which raised $200 million to relieve famine in Africa.

"Then we find out," he continues, "that's what the continent of Africa pays the richest countries in the world every couple of weeks on old loans that they have taken out… It's more than a shock. It's a scandal that for every dollar in aid we give the continent of Africa, they give us back $8. Something wrong there."

Jubilee 2000 is the European organization championing G8 (the world's eight wealthiest industrialized countries) to forgive Third World debt. Bono lobbies on their behalf.

"When you're younger, you have this idea of the good guys and the bad guys, and sometimes you're right. Sometimes you're wrong," he explains. "I've met people on both sides of the aisle, people I would disagree with on s many fundamental issues. But (they) have come to our side on the idea of canceling debts owed by the poorest countries in the world to the richest. I'm quite amazed."

Bono says Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) sat in his office Wednesday and wept as they talked about children starving in Africa. Recalls the singer, "He said, 'We're not doing enough. It's not right that America should, you know, at this time of unimaginable prosperity, should be taking money from these people.' That's an extraordinary thing to have him say that, and the president's been on the case here. The treasury. Everyone wants to fix it. The problem is, the bureaucrats that get in the way and the red tape. I'm asking these people: Get out your scissors and cut through this crap."

U2 has a new album coming out, but when asked about it, Bono deflects the question.

"I'd rather not talk about U2 this morning, if that's okay," he said. "I love the band. I love being in the band, and I can't wait to get back to my day job. But, at the moment, I'm in Washington… This is more important to me right now."

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